From today’s New York Times:
Whatever Happened to Discipline and Hard Work? by Tyler Cowan
I find that I am hearing too much talk about riches and not enough about values. It’s worth recalling why so many Americans have respected the wealthy in the first place.
The United States has always had a culture with a high regard for those able to rise from poverty to riches. It has had a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit and has attracted ambitious immigrants, many of whom were drawn here by the possibility of acquiring wealth. Furthermore, the best approach for fighting poverty is often precisely not to make fighting poverty the highest priority. Instead, it’s better to stress achievement and the pursuit of excellence, like a hero from an Ayn Rand novel. These are still at least the ideals of many conservatives and libertarians.
In short, the traditional, pro-wealth cultural vision has a great appeal for me. . . . The first problem is that higher status for the wealthy can easily lead to crony capitalism. . . .The second problem is that many conservatives have become so attached to their cultural vision that they have ceded sound, technocratic reasoning to the left and center. . . .The third problem is that the pro-wealth cultural vision may be overly optimistic about human willingness to embrace the idea of responsibility.
The counterintuitive tragedy is this: modern conservative thought is relying increasingly on social engineering through economic policy, by hoping that a weaker social welfare state will somehow promote individual responsibility. Maybe it won’t. . . .
For one thing, today’s elites are so wedded to permissive values — in part for their own pleasure and convenience — that a new conservative cultural revolution may have little chance of succeeding. Lax child-rearing and relatively easy divorce may be preferred by some high earners, but would conservatives wish them on society at large, including the poor and new immigrants? Probably not, but that’s often what we are getting.
In the future, complaints about income inequality are likely to grow and conservatives and libertarians won’t have all the answers. Nonetheless, higher income inequality will increase the appeal of traditional mores — of discipline and hard work — because they bolster one’s chances of advancing economically. That means more people and especially more parents will yearn for a tough, pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution. And so they should.
It remains to be seen how many of us are up to its demands.